Hey folks. I am getting closer and closer to releasing Protector of the Grove. I am working on the ending and doing some editing work. It is still on schedule for release later this month. I will let you know here and on my Facebook page when I am ready.
In the meantime, here is chapter two of Protector of the Grove to help tide you over. If you haven’t read chapter one, it is HERE. Also SPOILER ALERT if you have not read Tarah Woodblade yet, stop reading this post and get it now. What the heck have you been waiting for? The events in these two chapters happen after the events of Tarah Woodblade.
Here is the back of the cover blurb for Protector of the Grove as a reminder:
“Jhonate’s reprieve from her father has been cut short. She is forced to return home to Malaroo, bringing Justan along with her. The journey she has avoided for so long has become all the more difficult because someone wants Justan dead.
The rogue horse Esmine, a mythical beast of remarkable power, has been captured by a troupe of dwarf smugglers. They are taking her to the nation Alberri where a gnome scholar awaits with a vicious plan to sacrifice the beast and bind its powerful soul to make a weapon of mass destruction. Tarah Woodblade must gather a group of warriors and rescue Esmine before she is taken to Alberri.
Evil stirs. Darkness is building. But can anyone trust Xedrion, The Protector of the Grove?”
Now that that’s out of the way, here you go:
Jhonate ran away? Fist asked in surprise. Though the ogre was over a weeks’ travel away, lying in his oversized bed at the Mage School, his thoughts were clear in Justan’s mind. Their bond had a long range when they were both able to fully concentrate on the connection. It also helped that Justan’s magic was particularly strong. That doesn’t seem like her.
No it doesn’t. She was offended when her brother put it that way, Justan sent as he lay in his cot in the warehouse at the edge of Reneul’s ruins. The building used mainly to store equipment and rations, but the council allowed him a little corner to use as his own.
Justan had been offered a bunk in the officer’s quarters, but he had refused it. He didn’t feel comfortable there. He had never really been a student at the academy, much less an officer. Besides, Jhonate slept there and with the way she tended to listen to his thoughts, what if she listened to his dreams? Justan found the possibility shudder-inducing.
But Jhonate is good at running, Gwyrtha commented from her spot at the side of his cot. That was another benefit to sleeping in this place. The rogue horse could stay by him instead of sleeping in the stables with the horses. The more intelligent she became, the less she liked being housed with the animals.
Not like that, Gwyrtha, Fist said. The ogre could hear her from his side of the connection, though her thoughts were faint.
Ohh. You mean running in fear, Gwyrtha said. No, Jhonate doesn’t run like that.
Jhonate didn’t see it as running away at the time, Justan explained. At least that’s what she told herself. The way she explains it, she was just taking advantage of an opportunity. Sir Hilt had regaled her family with tales of the Battle Academy for years. So when she overheard her father and Sir Hilt talking about the possibility of sending one of his children to the academy, she decided to volunteer.
She ‘volunteered’? Fist said, his amusement rolling through the bond. By sneaking off into the night and pretending to be an envoy from her father?
Pretending? Why didn’t she ask her father first? Gwyrtha wondered.
She knew he never would have let her go, Justan replied.
Oh. Then she was running, she said matter-of-factly. Justan couldn’t refute the rogue horse’s logic.
What was so bad there that she wanted to leave? Fist wondered.
I don’t know, Justan said. I’ve gotten the picture that her father is overbearing but, knowing her, there has to be more to it than that. He shrugged. I’m sure I’ll find out more as we go.
When do you leave? Fist asked.
Justan could feel a hint of unease coming from the ogre. The day after tomorrow. I haven’t asked Hilt which route we’re taking yet, but I’m assuming we’ll stop by the Mage School on the way. That way you can join us. Fist’s anxiety rose and Justan paused. That is, if you want to come.
I do! The ogre said. It’s just . . . I have a lot to learn here right now and . . . Mistress Sherl might not let me.
Justan frowned. Do you have to refer to her as ‘Mistress Sherl’?
She says I have to, Fist said emphatically. She may be Darlan to you, but she’s Wizardess Sherl to the wizards and she says since the other apprentices have to address their masters properly, I do too.
Justan’s mother had taken Fist on as an apprentice when it was found out that he had elemental magic. Justan understood the logic, but it still felt strange.
Alright, but I think I can convince mother to let you come with me. Justan said and he could sense the ogre’s wince. Wait, you’re just making excuses, aren’t you? You must be having a good time there.
I am. See, Mistress Sherl made the other wizards let me bring Squirrel to class. Also . . . I have some good friends here now. We sit at lunch together every day and they even study with me at the library.
That’s good, Justan said, trying to sound enthusiastic, though he felt a sense of unease rising within him. Why did he feel that way? It was good for Fist to have friends. Who are they?
There’s Antyni. Fist pushed an image of the elf girl through to Justan’s mind. She looked odd wearing a student robe instead of her normal forest garb. They made her apprentice real fast. Somehow she remembers a lot of what Qyxal learned while he was here and her elemental magic’s real close to his too.
Justan nodded, remembering Qyxal’s funeral and the way the elf’s twin sister had linked with him before his spirit had passed on. That’s good for her. I’m glad you two are friends.
There’s also Neau. The ogre sent Justan an image of a portly young man wearing a blue robe with red trim. And Jezzer. This one was a thin older man wearing spectacles. His robe was gray. He’s new. He came here to learn how to use his spirit magic. The wizards say he’s good at blessing and binding magic.
That’s great for you, Fist, Justan said, pushing his unease away. You know, you really don’t need to feel bad if you don’t want to come with me to Malaroo. I understand.
No! It’s not like that, the ogre replied. I do want to come. I just . . . I’m not sure what to do. If you needed me to fight at your side I wouldn’t hesitate.
I know. And that shouldn’t be necessary, Justan said. I mean, it won’t be necessary. No fighting this trip.
You don’t sound sure, the ogre replied.
No. I’m sure. It’s-. It’s okay. Justan sighed. Look, we won’t make it down to the Mage School for another week yet. Think about it. Talk to my mother about it. See what she thinks. I’d love to have you with us, but I understand if you can’t. Do what’s best for you. Justan paused. This was the most awkward he had ever felt during a conversation with Fist. So, um, is there anything else interesting going on?
The new fire wizard on the High Council came today, Fist replied, glad for the change of subject. He’s named.
Really? Who is it?
The Mage School High Council had lost five of its seven members during the war. A staggering loss, but while the Academy had replaced its fallen council members within days, the wizards were still dragging their feet.
Master Barthas. He came from the Mage School in Alberri. Mistress Sherl knows him. She says his fire magic is just as strong as hers.
Barthas. The name sounded slightly familiar to him, but Justan couldn’t recall anything about the man. There were many named wizards he hadn’t met. The wizards he’d known were Mage School professors and most wizards didn’t stick around the school for long once they’d been named.
Oh! And there’s something else. Something big happened, Fist said excitedly.
Something big? Justan’s curiosity perked up.
But it’s a secret, Fist said mischievously.
Justan chuckled. So you’re going to bring it up and then not tell me?
I can’t. I promised, the ogre replied. But I can tell you that it’s good news.
A good-news-type secret. You’re going to leave it like that?
Yes, Fist said. You can see when you get here.
Justan sighed. All right. Well, good night. I’ll contact you again tomorrow and tell you what Sir Hilt says about our plans.
Good night, Justan. I . . . good night.
With that, their contact ended. The bond between them thinned until all that was left in Justan’s mind was a general knowledge of the direction the ogre was in. Justan put his hands behind his head and laid there in the darkness of the warehouse, his mind digesting the conversation he’d just had with Fist.
Of all the people in his life, Justan found Fist the easiest to talk to. Yet this time he hadn’t been able to put his thoughts together. Why had he been so unhappy with Fist’s good news? They were the things he’d wanted for Fist all along, weren’t they?
When he’d first bonded with Fist in Ewzad Vriil’s foul dungeon, the large ogre had been almost childlike in the ways of humans. Justan had wanted nothing more than to share everything with him and it had torn at him whenever Fist had faced adversity because of his race. Now Fist was finally gaining acceptance for who he was. Why had Justan’s first reaction to the news been to dislike it? Was it because these new friendships were keeping the ogre away from him?
A pang of guilt struck him. How petty and selfish his emotions had been. To make things worse, he knew that Fist had felt his reaction through the bond. The ogre was probably feeling terrible about wanting to stay at the school. Justan promised himself that he would apologize to Fist the next time they spoke.
He should be with us, Gwyrtha said. The rogue horse was, as usual, listening in.
I would prefer that too, Gwyrtha. But what’s important is Fist’s happiness. He needs to do what’s best for him.
But we are his tribe, Gwyrtha replied in confusion. He said so.
And we are, Justan sent. They were more than a tribe. Their bond gave them a closeness that couldn’t be found elsewhere in life. That doesn’t change no matter how far apart we might be. But we can’t force him to stay by our side.
The last four months being apart from Fist had been hard. Justan hadn’t realized how much he’d depended on his friend. Despite his relative newness to life among the goodly races, Fist had a surprising amount of insight. Justan knew that when he went to Fist with his problems the ogre would somehow help him find the answer. Now there was only a short amount of time during the day that they could talk and long-distance communication just wasn’t the same as speaking in person.
It had gotten even harder two months prior when Deathclaw had left with Hugh the Shadow on a mission for the academy. If Fist was Justan’s moral compass, Deathclaw was his best strategic advisor. Justan closed his eyes again and reached into the bond to find that bundle of awareness that was his connection with the raptoid.
Deathclaw was far away, farther than Fist, yet their link was nearly as strong. Justan fed his thoughts through the bond. Deathclaw. Can you speak with me?
Justan received a faint acknowledgement, telling him that Deathclaw had heard his request. He waited for the raptoid to be in a situation where they could speak. Hugh the Shadow was head of the assassin’s guild at the Battle Academy and he had his men do much of their work during the night. This made finding a good time to communicate a difficult prospect. Sometimes it would take hours before Deathclaw was in a position to reply.
Luckily, this time was an exception. Justan only had to wait for a few minutes before he felt the raptoid reaching towards him through the bond. Justan joined the raptoids thought with his own and their connection strengthened. The bond opened up until Justan could feel it solidify like a thick cord, bridging the hundreds of miles between them.
It has been a week since you contacted me, Deathclaw began and, though the raptoid tried to keep his thoughts free of emotion, there was a reproachful tone in his voice. I was beginning to wonder if you were well.
Justan was surprised at the disapproving note. The bond would tell you if something happened to me.
True. If you died, I would fall to the ground helpless, Deathclaw replied with a hint of sarcasm. Other than that, you could be in harm’s way and I would remain unaware and unable to help.
I’m sorry. We’ve been quite busy around here and you haven’t been easy to reach lately.
Hugh the Shadow’s current mission was to hunt down the various remnants of Ewzad Vriil’s army that had become roaming bands of brigands. It was a task requested by the current leader of Dremaldria, Lord Commander Demetrius himself. They already had at least two other groups out doing similar missions.
Nevertheless, I ask that you try harder, Deathclaw replied. We have many periods of rest between raids. We could communicate then.
You’re right, Justan said. I promise to try harder. How are the raids going?
Hugh the Shadow’s ways are strange to me. His behavior is too relaxed, but I must admit that he is an efficient leader, Deathclaw sent. His men work together in a precise manner. They are eager to please him and do their killing well.
That’s good to hear, Justan replied, smiling to himself. When Hugh had approached Justan and requested Deathclaw’s aid Justan had pushed the raptoid to do it, thinking that working with the famed assassin would be good for him. How many bands have you hunted down?
We have destroyed seven. Deathclaw did a quick count in his mind. I have slain thirty of these men on my own.
Impressive, Justan said. And how are your lips? Are they working for you?
They are much better. I have . . . become used to them.
When Deathclaw had asked Justan to give him lips, Justan was trepidatious. He had known it was possible. After all, he had altered Gwyrtha’s body and Deathclaw’s cellular structure had a similar makeup. But the changes Justan had made to Gwyrtha were modifications to body parts that were already there. Deathclaw was asking him to create something new. Ewzad Vriil had transformed Deathclaw’s head into a humanoid shape, but his reptilian face had not been made for lips.
In addition, Gwyrtha had vast reserves of energy for Justan to draw on to make the changes while Deathclaw did not. When Gwyrtha’s body changed, she had to use massive amounts of energy to keep them in place. Gwyrtha hadn’t minded letting Justan draw energy from her to create Deathclaw’s new lips, but he hadn’t known what would happen if he succeeded. Once the energy was gone, would these new lips remain stable? Would they just wither away?
When Justan had brought his concerns to the raptoid, Deathclaw had wanted to go through with it anyway. The change had not been easy. Justan had been forced to create new skin, muscle, and nerve pathways, so that Deathclaw could feel with his new lips and control them.
A lot of experimentation had been involved. The process hadn’t been painful for Deathclaw, but sometimes Justan didn’t get the nerves right and the sensations were disturbing. After several days of modifications, Deathclaw finally had a set of lips that worked.
Then came the true test. Would they stay? When Justan withdrew Gwyrtha’s energy from the raptoid’s new lips, the tissue stabilized. Somehow, the blood magic from Deathclaw’s dragon heritage allowed his body to adapt and accept his lips as part of its new structure.
Then it had been up to Deathclaw to learn to use them. In the beginning it was hard. They got in his way and he kept accidentally biting them. But Deathclaw had a special talent for controlling his body and he soon figured them out. By the time he had left on his mission, he had even been able to use them in speech.
Evidently they were working even better now because Deathclaw seemed pleased. They feel like a true part of me. Sometimes I forget that I didn’t always have them. I am . . . grateful.
I’m just glad they worked for you. There were so many ways that could have gone bad.
But it did not, Deathclaw said. Was that the reason for your contact tonight? I sense there is something else you need to say.
Yes. Actually, something very important happened. Sir Hilt showed up here today. Justan brought the raptoid up do date, telling him everything that had happened since the named warrior had arrived with Jhonate’s brothers in tow.
You will leave immediately? Deathclaw asked, his mind calculating.
Yes. The day after tomorrow.
Then I should come right away and join you, Deathclaw said, coming to a decision. If Jhonate’s father is fierce enough to injure Hilt, he is quite dangerous. You will need me by your side.
Good, but-. We aren’t going there to fight with him, Justan said with a sigh. Why did everyone have to talk like he was heading off to war? I am just going there to meet him and Jhonate’s people. Nevertheless, I would feel better if you were with me. How far away are you from me now?
We are on the far side of your large city, Dremald. Hugh the Shadow calls it The Five Hills region.
Justan bit his lip. He was familiar with the area. That was near Castle Vriil. You are at least three weeks away by foot. Hugh the Shadow hasn’t taught you to ride horses, has he? he asked teasingly.
Deathclaw gave him a mental snort. Those animals would not wish me on their backs. Deathclaw was the height and weight of a man, but one look at his reptilian appearance and fearsome claws unnerved most creatures. Besides, I can run faster than you humans like to travel by horseback.
I’m faster, Gwyrtha remarked.
Even so, you might not catch up to us until we are already in Malaroo, Justan said. Deathclaw was indeed fast, but he wasn’t tireless. He’d have to stop and sleep.
I’m faster! Gwyrtha insisted.
Yes you are, girl, Justan sent in an attempt to mollify her, but then an idea hit him. She really was fast. Faster than any horse and with a nearly limitless stamina. Gwyrtha could run nonstop and meet Deathclaw along the way.
I do not wish to ride her, Deathclaw said, sensing where Justan was going with his thoughts.
Oh! I will get him! I will go and get Deathclaw and bring him to you! Gwyrtha said with enthusiasm. She leapt to her feet in excitement, nearly knocking Justan’s small cot over.
Whoa! Hold on, girl! Justan exclaimed, nearly losing his connection with the raptoid. You’re not leaving just yet. With a grumble, Gwyrtha settled back down and he returned his attention to Deathclaw. I think it’s the best choice. It’s the only way you could catch up to us in time. I can keep you two linked together and she’ll be able to find you along the way.
Deathclaw let out his equivalent of a frustrated groan, something which sounded like a hiss with a low gurgle on the end. Very well. I shall ride her. I will tell Hugh the Shadow I am returning to you. I leave in the morning.
We will speak again tomorrow night, once I have the details of our journey, Justan sent to Deathclaw.
Farewell, then, Deathclaw replied. He withdrew his thoughts from the bond and their connection faded.
I could leave now, Gwyrtha pressed, her thoughts restless.
Justan could sense the eagerness for a long journey within her. I know. But I want to wait until after I’ve spoken with Hilt. He may say something that alters our plans.
She laid her head down on her reptilian front claws. Waiting is boring.
I know, Justan said again. But for now just try to sleep. Time passes faster that way.
Sleeping is boring, she grumped, but obediently closed her eyes.
Justan yawned. He needed to sleep as well, but there was one last thing he needed to do first. He let his mind slip back into the soft whiteness of the bond and centered his thoughts. He reached out to sift through his bonds. He moved past his connections to Fist, Deathclaw, and Gwyrtha, ignoring his smaller bonds to his naming swords and his Jharro Bow.
Finally, he settled on his first true bond; the soul of his great grandfather Artemis. Artemis had been a powerful ice wizard and when he’d died his soul had become the Scralag, a terrifying ice elemental. This creature was sealed within a frost-covered scar on Justan’s chest.
Justan reached for the connection, feeling a chill breeze blow through the bond. He sent his thoughts inside to find that, as usual, the way was blocked. Justan switched to mage sight and saw the blockage clearly. It was a thick web of blue and gold strands; frost magic.
He felt along the blockage until he found what he was looking for. There was a crack. It was small, but larger than it had been even a few short weeks ago. The prophet’s suggestion was bearing fruit. As he had every night for the last four months, Justan pushed his thoughts close up to the crack and called out.
Great grandfather! Artemis! It is Justan. I’ve come to speak with you again.
There was no response at first. Then Justan heard movement behind the blockage, followed by a whispering hiss that vibrated with power. GO AWAY. I AM NOT NEEDED.
Though Justan knew he should have been used to it by now, the eerie sound still sent a shiver through him. The Scralag wasn’t evil, but it was harsh and unpredictable. His grandfather’s mind had very little control over its actions. Artemis! I want to speak with Artemis.
Justan saw a beady red eye peer back at him through the crack. LEAVE US!
The voice was insistent, but Justan didn’t move. He was encouraged by the fact that the frost elemental was actually speaking to him. This was an improvement. In the beginning all it would do was hiss threateningly. Now, after months of persistence, it conversed with him. He had even heard the faint sound of Artemis’ voice a few times.
Please let Artemis speak with me.
WE ARE RESTING!
Justan thought for a moment. How could he coerce his great grandfather to battle the elemental for control? What did Artemis need to hear? Perhaps the family angle would work. Please speak with me. I want your advice. I am traveling to Malaroo to meet the family of my betrothed and her father is not happy that we wish to marry.
Malaroo, said the Scralag, but its whispery voice sounded more human somehow; less terrifying. A dark place . . . Full of spirit magic . . . Home of the holy grove.
Justan grinned. He was there! Artemus was exerting control of the creature. The grove, yes! My betrothed is one of the Roo-Tan. They protect the grove.
Ah, the grove . . . to speak with the trees again . . . the trees . . . The whispery voice sounded wistful. Then a harsh tone interrupted the voice. GIVE THEM ICE! FROST THE LEAVES! . . . Ahh the grove.
Justan! Gwyrtha interrupted. Wake. Listen!
Not now, Justan told her. He needed to hold his great grandfather’s soul there as long as possible. The grove, Artemus, tell me about it.
The leaves . . . FREEZE THEM! . . . They never fall.
Justan, someone is coming! Gwyrtha insisted. Her head was up, her ears perked.
Justan felt her concern through the bond and knew better than to ignore her when she was so insistent. Whatever she wanted, it was important. I’ve got to go, Artemus. Please, continue to fight. Win control of the elemental. Be yourself again!
The voice softened again. The mother . . . Beware the mother.
Justan withdrew his thoughts from the bond and sat up. He extended the heightened senses given to him by his bond with Deathclaw. There were no light sources inside the warehouse, so he couldn’t see anything but a sliver of moonlight shining in through the crack at the front door. His ears picked up the tiniest of scuffling sounds from outside. Someone was walking around the edge of the building. Just one person.
What can you tell? He asked Gwyrtha. The rogue horse’s senses were far more detailed than his. Is it Jhonate?
No, Gwyrtha replied. Her steps are softer than this. She slowly stood and crept into the darkness towards the front doors. She sniffed, but there was no way for the scent to come into the warehouse. There are two sounds. Two someones.
Justan sat up, his eyes barely able to make out Gwyrtha’s form creeping in the darkness. It was probably nothing, but the intensity of her interest caused him concern. These people couldn’t be academy guards. They patrolled in groups of four and rarely came this close to the warehouse. It could be a couple workers out late for some reason, but it wasn’t common for workers to be out at the edges of the site at night, especially with how cold it was.
The soft noises moved around the edge of the warehouse wall and slowly approached the doors. Justan reached for the small light orb in the stand next to his cot, but paused. The sudden brightness would momentarily blind him. Instead, he pulled his blankets back and slid his feet into his boots. He was only wearing his padded winter underclothes, but he didn’t waste time dressing completely. Making as little noise as he could, Justan grasped his sword sheathes at the foot of his cot and slung them over his shoulders.
Gwyrtha crept around the wagons and boxes of stores and headed towards the door. Justan followed, making sure to keep to her path so that he didn’t bump into anything. The sounds had reached the front door and stopped. Justan saw the small pinprick of light that was the crack between the doors go dark as something passed in front of it.
Were they thieves, perhaps? Some of the workers deciding to make off with rations? The war had been hard on farmers all over Dremaldria and food was scarce. The vast number of hidden stores the academy had unearthed in the area after the war was one of the main reasons they had attracted so many to help.
The shadow stayed in front of the doors and made a slight noise. Gwyrtha suppressed a growl and Justan realized that the person outside was sniffing at the crack. What kind of person did that?
Not a person, Gwyrtha sent and she started a chant in her mind as she transformed her body. I am fast. I am hard. I am strong. I am fast. I am hard. I am strong . . .
She ducked behind a wagon as she changed. Justan couldn’t see her form in the darkness anymore, but he knew what the transformation was like. Gwyrtha’s patchwork body and tail were shrinking, her reptilian snout shortening. The scaled patches on her body were becoming harder, like armored plate, and the hairs on her body were lengthening and becoming stiff like wires. Her claws would lengthen, as would her teeth, making this smaller form truly formidable.
The doors creaked slightly as one of the figures outside grasped the handles. Justan had locked the doors as he did every night, but he reached up over his shoulders and gripped the pommels of his swords anyway just in case. He felt the power of his swords overtake him. The magic of his left sword, the one he called Peace, sucked all of his emotion away, leaving his mind in a state of pure calm. His right sword, Rage, stored those leeched emotions and converted them into energy, eager to unleash it as explosive power.
The doors gave a brief shudder as hands outside tried to pull them open, then found that they were locked. Next came a scraping noise as something was inserted into the lock. A lockpick? These did seem like thieves after all. Justan considered crying out and scaring them off, but thought better of it. Better to catch them in the act now then have them cause trouble at a later date.
Not persons, Gwyrtha insisted, then continued her chant. I am Fast. I am hard. I am strong . . .
Are you sure? Justan asked as he heard the lockpick manipulating the tumblers within the lock. They sure are acting like thieves.
They aren’t breathing, she replied.
Justan’s hands tightened on his swords. Not breathing? What could they be? All living creatures had to breathe didn’t they? Are you saying they’re some kind of magical constructs?
There was a small click as the lock released. Then the doors opened outward, pulled by two figures wearing winter furs. Moonlight poured into the warehouse illuminating the objects nearest the doors.
The invaders certainly looked like regular workmen, one of them with thick blond hair and a downy beard, while the other one had short black hair and a goatee. They cocked their heads in unison and peered into the darkness where Justan and Gwyrtha hid.
Justan pulled his swords from their sheaths and stood, knowing that the moonlight wouldn’t reach far enough into the warehouse to reveal him to them yet.
Get ready to cut off their escape, he sent to Gwyrtha. Then he shouted with a commanding voice, “Stop! What are you doing here this time of night?”
He fully expected the men to react with surprise. Instead, both of them gave him a reassuring smile. If Peace hadn’t been draining his emotions, Justan would have shuddered. There was something wrong with their faces. Their smiles were a bit too wide, their teeth a bit too large.
See their mouths? Gwyrtha said. The rogue horse wasn’t feeling fear, just excitement at the prospect of a fight. No steam.
Justan realized that she was right. With temperatures this cold, everyone’s breath frosted in the air. No such steam flowed from their gleaming teeth. They stepped towards him.
“Stop, I told you! Lie down on the ground!” Justan said, readying himself to attack.
The two men said nothing. They raised empty hands, showing him their lack of weapons, and continued towards him, their steps slightly jerky, almost bird-like. Their overlarge grins stretched even further in an attempt to be reassuring, but Justan wasn’t fooled. Even if Gwyrtha hadn’t warned him, he’d have known something was wrong.
Justan crouched and slid silently to the side in the darkness, hoping to catch the things by surprise. But their heads swiveled to follow him and, as they stepped out of the moonlight, he saw their eyes glow softly. Justan swore inwardly. They had him at a disadvantage. These things could see in the dark. His preparations had turned on him.
Now! he sent to Gwyrtha.
Her dark form leapt from behind a wagon and bore one of them down under her. The thing collapsed under her weight without so much as a gasp of surprise. The second thing didn’t even look back at its companion, but continued towards Justan with its arms raised.
Gwyrtha pinned the strange thing to the ground, her front claws gripping its arms. Her rear claws snapped bones in its legs as her weight crushed them beneath her. Her sensitive eyes saw the creature clearly in the dark and it perturbed her that its expression didn’t change with the pain she had given it. It cocked its head at her and Gwyrtha finally heard a sound coming out of it. A wet noise issued from its abdomen and she felt something sharp strike her in the belly.
Justan felt Gwyrtha’s surprise and pain through the bond and launched himself at the thing in front of him, hoping to end the fight quickly. His mind shifted into the battle state that Deathclaw had taught him and time slowed. The creature’s pace didn’t change as Justan approached. He swung his right arm, bringing Peace down between its softly glowing eyes.
Peace cut through the skin of its forehead and struck bone. Time slowed to a crawl as the sword passed a sudden understanding through Justan’s mind. There was no emotion for the sword to steal from this foe. Its thoughts were strange and alien, but one thing became clear. The creature had but one purpose in being here. It had been sent to kill Justan.
Peace cleaved through its skull, but the thing felt no pain. There was no brain or vital organ within its head, just a knot of unformed flesh. The sword split the head in half, its edge wedging into the top of the thing’s spinal column.
Justan was still processing the information he had received when the thing’s arms shot forward. They made a squelching sound as they extended longer than should be possible. Then its hands grasped his shoulders. Only they weren’t hands any longer, but thick talons instead.
Justan jerked back, but Peace was still bound in the creature’s spine. The talons tore through the flesh of his shoulders, scoring bone and sinew. Luckily, Peace sucked the pain away and Justan was able to bring Rage to bear. His eager sword swung under its arms and pierced the thing’s belly. Justan felt a brief jolt of fear from it just as he released the sword’s energy in a concussive blast.
The explosion made no light, but there was a heavy thud as the creature’s body was hurled from Justan, separating into two pieces before colliding with crates and barrels of supplies. Its claws ripped free and Justan stumbled backwards, striking his hip on a handcart in the darkness.
Justan! Gwyrtha called out in anger and pain. Hurry!
Justan saw her form struggling with another in the blackness and darted for the side wall. The bond told him that she was hurt. Something had pierced the armored plates in her belly and more things were digging into her sides.
He couldn’t help if he couldn’t see. He stumbled over a piece of wood and was unable to raise his arms in time to brace himself before slamming his wounded shoulders into the wall.
He knew he was bleeding profusely. Blood ran over the backs of his hands as he struggled to raise his arms high enough to press the rune on the wall that would light the warehouse. If he hadn’t still been holding Peace in his hand, he wouldn’t have been able to do it, but the sword leeched away his pain.
He fumbled at the wall for a few long moments before his forearm struck the iron plate the rune was on. He was forced to drop Rage to the ground so that he could press his hand to the rune. A row of light orbs hanging from the ceiling of the warehouse glowed to life, bathing the area with white light.
Justan turned towards Gwyrtha’s struggle. She had the thing’s head in her mouth and its arms and legs pinned, but several long appendages like spider’s legs had grown from its torso and dug at her body. He bent and grasped Rage’s pommel just as Gwyrtha reared back, wrenching the creature’s head free from its neck.
She spat its head to the side and leapt back from the thing, but it refused to let go and she ended up dragging its body with her. Gwyrtha clawed at its appendages, knocking several of them away, but the one piercing her belly was stubborn. She gripped it and pulled at it, but it wouldn’t let go.
It won’t die! she exclaimed as the thing stood and pulled back, its legs having healed and its feet splitting into gripping claws.
“I’m coming!” Justan lurched towards her, hoping his arms had the strength to swing Rage at the thing. The sword’s stored energy had been depleted by the force of the blast, but Justan’s pain was rapidly filling it.
Gwyrtha spun and whipped her tail around, striking the thing in its side. The scales of her tail had formed spikes that raked the thing’s body as she knocked it back to the ground. The appendage finally tore free from her belly and she backed away from it, growling as blood poured from the wound.
Justan reached her side as the creature came quickly back to its feet. Several more clawed arms grew from the creature’s body and a new head began to form from the torn stump where the other head had been. This new head had large hawkish eyes and a wicked beak.
You are hurt! Gwyrtha said.
So are you, Justan replied.
Is your one dead? she asked.
“I hope so,” Justan said aloud. His eyes darted to the place where the pieces of the creature had struck and saw no movement.
The thing standing before them reached out with an appendage and speared the ruined mess of a head that Gwyrtha had torn from it. The flesh of the old head turned black and long spikes grew from it.
It doesn’t smell like one of the wizard’s monsters, Gwyrtha said, her eyes focused on the monster as it continued to change.
No. I don’t know what it is, but this is something different, Justan said. We’ll have to tear it to pieces like the other one, but I won’t be much use with my arms like this.
I’ll do it, she promised, her growl increasing.
Okay, here’s the plan, Justan said. You attack it. I’ll go through the bond and focus on healing you. The ability to heal his bonded was one of the few useful things his elemental magic gave him.
Good, she said, preparing to leap. The creature was even more of a nightmare now, its various limbs grasping, an amalgam of teeth and claws.
Suddenly there was a soft whistle as something darted in from outside the open doors, striking the creature’s side. The thing spasmed as arcs of electricity flashed across its limbs. It collapsed to the ground, jittering.
A short elf bounded into the warehouse, another arrow notched on his gray bow. He was old and weathered, his skin dark, his hair short and stubbly, and he wore nothing but a leather loincloth and a quiver slung over his back.
“Yntri Yni?” Justan exclaimed, glad to see the elf.
The ancient elf scowled at him and let out a series of reprimands in his odd language of clicks and whistles, all the while gesturing at the convulsing monster.
They watched in stunned silence as the Yntri bent over the creature and placed his head on its chest. Then he stood back and unstrung his Jharro bow in one smooth motion. The wood of the bow straightened, one end forming a spear-like tip. With a grunt of satisfaction, Yntri Yni stabbed his weapon into the creature’s thigh.
A brief squeal exited the thing’s bird-like mouth as it slowly turned to stone.
THE END OF CHAPTER TWO
Protector of the Grove comes out soon. It’s like days, maybe a week away. Tell me what you think in the comments below. I want to hear from you.
Trevor H. Cooley